Review by Pat Fitzhugh of The Bell Witch Site
Transparency Notice: I am in this movie. However, I do not receive monetary compensation based on its sales.
December 20, 2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Tennessee farmer, John Bell, allegedly by the hand of a malevolent entity called the “Bell Witch.” The saga of Bell’s tragic death and the sinister grasp of terror that his family was forced to endure has evolved into one of America’s greatest supernatural legends.
Days before the somber anniversary of Bell’s passing, Ohio-based film company Small Town Monsters released “The Mark of the Bell Witch,” a supernatural, docu-horror movie that focuses on the Tennessee version of the legend between the years 1817 and 1821.
In early 2020, while discussing my involvement in the film with writer-director Seth Breedlove, I remarked that most Bell Witch-related shows use the same worn-out approach to tell the same old story, and that I am constantly asked whether anyone will ever “get it right.” A few months later, Small Town Monsters got it right.
“The Mark of the Bell Witch” takes a historical approach by relating the earliest stories in their original form, providing true-life reenactments that depict genuine human fear rather than thrills or frills, and placing the stories along a well-thought-out storyline that intertwines the story with expert commentary while keeping a solid pace and maintaining the logical order of events. The film is divided into well-transitioned chapters that advance the story in such a way that viewers can digest the story as it unfolds.
Small Town Monsters cemented their historical focus by allowing Bell Witch researchers and related subject-matter experts to peel back the layers of time and provide depth, context, and perspective throughout the production. This approach, which is arguably one of the film’s strongest points, helps viewers to understand not only important details and developments that have surfaced, but also how the legend came about, how it has evolved, its cultural effect on the region, and its place in American history and folklore. Many previous film interpretations have lacked value because they required researchers to simply tell the story and do nothing more. Conversely, by allowing researchers to come full circle and discuss their findings on camera, Breedlove and his crew have added significant value and validity to their production.
Of particular interest to me was the interview with African American local historian, John Baker. He is a treasure trove of information about the area’s African American history, including slave ownership and how it likely had an impact on the Bell Witch legend. All too often, certain families and groups are omitted from Bell Witch-related productions, although their stories and perspectives need to be heard. Kudos to Small Town Monsters for seeking Mr. Baker’s input and perspective in the making of this film.
It is also noteworthy that “The Mark of the Bell Witch” is unbiased. With the Bell Witch being such a controversial case, well-balanced research and interpretations are hard to find. Small Town Monsters presents the legend in a clear, open fashion, without trying to prove or disprove it. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions. Bravo!
Lauren Ashley Carter’s narrations are impactful and on point, performed with perfect timing and absent hesitation or distraction. Small Town Monsters made highly effective use of paradox in selecting Lauren as the narrator. Her voice and tone make the perfect counterpoint to the terrifying subject at hand, cutting a mark that runs deep. I was also impressed with the storytelling and historical analyses provided by Heather Moser, a classics professor and researcher at Small Town Monsters. Her research is spot-on, and she articulates her findings very well. Her professional demeanor is second to none.
The actual Spirit, played by producer Adrienne Breedlove, looked intense and downright creepy, just as how I would picture “Old Kate.” A lot of careful thought and planning obviously went into the Spirit scenes and character.
The other actors, Amy Davies (Betsy Bell), Aaron Gascon (John Bell, Jr.), Thomas Koosed (John Bell, Sr.), Grayden Nance (Drew Bell), and John Bell’s hair-do, did an awesome job as well. Their wardrobes were accurate to the period being portrayed, and their acting realistically portrayed how the Bell family likely reacted when faced with their unwelcome “visitor.”
The filming, scene compositions, still shots, audio, and overall production quality are of a class that is typically reserved for household name companies with huge budgets. One of the biggest things I noticed during onsite filming was the crew’s passion for getting the job done right; they all share a sincere interest and did everything it took to make a high-quality film. Well done.
With “The Mark of The Bell Witch,” Small Town Monsters have brewed up a perfectly blended concoction of history, folklore, expert input, and reenactments, to create what is, in my opinion, the best Bell Witch film interpretation to come along thus far.
For those interested in the “Bell Witch” mystery.
The development is not a newly-discovered secret, or missing piece of a puzzle; it is something that was written in 1820, held by the writer’s family until the 1930s, and published to a scholarly audience in the 1950s. We call this a “new development” because its reference to the “Bell Witch,” which is not by name, but through historical context, was noticed in modern times. The actual document and Bell Witch reference have been around for 200 years.
I was not the person who found it, but I have been hearing about it for some time. Recently, I was provided with a link to the actual document for analysis and comment, which you will find, below:
What is the development and why is it important?
The new development is an entry made in a journal kept by Army Captain John R. Bell (no relation to the “Bell Witch” Bells) while working as the official journalist for Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1820. The journal covers from March 13th to November 20th of that year. In addition to writings about the famed expedition, the journal also contains entries from Captain Bell’s return trip from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to Washington, D.C. It was during that last leg of his journey when, on October 19, 1820, he passed through the Red River area of northwestern Middle Tennessee.
While spending the day at a plantation, he was told about a young girl surrounded by voices that relentlessly urged her to marry a neighbor. Although Captain Bell did not call the John Bell family by name, the year and location of this telling, along with the mention of the girl living three miles away, leaves no doubt that Betsy Bell was the centerpiece of the story that had been told to Captain Bell. Also, an account published some 30-35 years later told the same story and referred to Betsy Bell name. In his journal, Captain John R. Bell wrote:
“Rather a single circumstance was here related to me. of a young girl of about 15 years of age, residing but 3 miles from Murphey, a voice accompanies her, which says she should marry a man, a neighbor–thousands of persons have visited her to hear this voice, in many instances, it will reply to questions put to it, the visitors have left as little satisfied in their curiosity as before they heard it, many are under the impression, that it is ventriloquism imposed upon the hearers either by the girl or her brother–who it seems is generally in her company, her family is respectable.”
Captain Bell’s use of the phrase, “related to me,” in the introductory sentence, indicates that his account is second-hand (hearsay), meaning he was not an eyewitness. Hearsay accounts indeed make the mystery bigger, and perhaps more entertaining from a storytelling perspective, but they neither solve the mystery nor add substance to the investigation. Every account of the Bell Witch in book, article, documentary, and movie form that discusses the alleged events of 1817-1821 has been second-hand. Every Single One.
I am well-aware of “Our Family Trouble,” the alleged eyewitness account of Richard Williams Bell that is contained in, and serves as the cornerstone of, Martin Ingram’s 1894 work of fiction. No one has come forward with the actual document (although many have claimed to have it), and a professional analysis of the writing style, references to scripture, use of cliche’ words, and Freemasonry references, conducted in 2015, provides strong evidence that Ingram was likely the author of the “eyewitness” account. For those reasons, I do not consider the “Our Family Trouble” eyewitness manuscript as valid evidence in the Bell Witch case (but if you have it, bring it to me and let me have it analyzed–and prove me wrong).
Is there an old, first-person eyewitness account stuffed away in a rotting trunk in someone’s attic or basement that tells the “real truth” of the Bell Witch mystery? Many have claimed to possess such documents, and some have used their alleged existence as the basis for books and movies (perhaps to create an illusion of credibility), but the proverbial bottom line is that those claiming to possess these “holy grail” documents seemingly vanish into thin air when serious researchers ask to examine the documents and have the paper and handwriting professionally analyzed for authenticity. That is a very simple and reasonable request under the circumstances; extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
If most anyone had such an important, game-changing document, they would be eager to have it professionally analyzed so as to garner support among researchers. No theory, Bell Witch or otherwise, will advance very far, much less see the light of day, without acceptance and support from the research community. At the end of the day, they are the people most listened-to, and the ones who will ultimately drive and promote your theory to the masses.
Thankfully, Captain John R. Bell’s journal is accessible, and given its clear, spelled-out chain of transmittal through the years, there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. But, why is this second-hand account so important? Does it add any value? You betcha.
While Captain Bell’s second-hand (hearsay) account does not solve the mystery of the Bell Witch, or propel the investigation along in a more fruitful way, it is significant to Bell Witch researchers because it was written in 1820, 12 years before Martin Ingram was born. It debunks the theory that Ingram made up the entire legend. The old “Ingram Fabrication Theory,” which I feel is no longer viable, stated that Ingram “made up” the legend because nothing had been written about the Bell Witch prior to his 1894 work of fiction–and if anything turns up, it was probably written by Ingram. Captain Bell’s 1820 journal entry occurred before Ingram was born, meaning he [Ingram] could not have written or influenced it.
And now, diehard proponents of the now-defunct Ingram Fabrication Theory will likely argue that Ingram “wrote it from the womb,” but that’s neither my monkey nor my circus.
It is also noteworthy that Captain Bell’s account is, essentially, the same story–a young girl surrounded by voices saying to marry Joshua Gardner–that was published by the Saturday Evening Post 30 to 35 years later, and reprinted by the Green Mountain Freeman (in Vermont) on February 7, 1856. Captain Bell’s journal did not mention the Bell family by name, but the Saturday Evening Post article did, which suggests the two early accounts, written 30 to 35 years apart, came from different sources.
I will also note that the two early accounts make no mention of Betsy going into trances, having her hair pulled, being beaten, or suffering any other misfortunes except, maybe, not getting to marry the love of her life. The early accounts also make no mention of an invisible entity predicting the future, speaking in preachers’ own voices, gnawing on bedposts, or turning farm workers into giant rabbits and mules, and “riding them to hell for breakfast.” More on that in future posts.
To summarize, Captain Bell’s journal debunks the Ingram Fabrication Theory and, when viewed along with the Saturday Evening Post article reprint in the Green Mountain Freeman, shows that the Bell disturbances–how ever benign or severe they might have been–had become known to people outside of the Middle Tennessee region.
Here is Captain Bell’s journal entry as published in the 1950s (copyright 1957, the Arthur H. Clark Company) and used here for the purpose of education under the Fair-Use law:
Captain John R. Bell’s full journal, including catalog and citation information, is available online, here.
The other referenced account, the Green Mountain Freeman’s reprint of the Saturday Evening Post’s “Bell Witch” article, known as “The Tennessee Ghost,” is shown below:
The February 7, 1856 edition of the Green Mountain Freeman can be read online, here. My 2017 write-up about the Green Mountain Freeman article and the now-defunct Ingram Fabrication Theory can be found here.
Thanks for reading. So long for now.
Blues and Roots Radio, a large international broadcasting network, has ranked The Bell Witch – Let the Game Begin in their global Top Ten, debuting at #7.
Kudos to my partners in crime–Snapper Long, Jimmy Williams, and Lydia Bain–for their hard work and musicianship, and to the others for their behind-the-scenes dedication to the project.
And, special kudos to the Bell Witch for leaving us alone while we worked, at least up to the point when we shot the promo trailer video (which is another story).
Haven’t heard it yet? Give it a listen at YouTube.
Want to know more? Check out the promo trailer with behind-the-scenes footage and performer interviews, here.
Had a great time in Brownsville, Tennessee, Friday night! The weather was right, and the 120+ who came to the BELL WITCH lecture+QA+Signing event seemed to enjoy it. Thanks so much for coming out!
It was also great catching up with old friends and ghost-hunting buddies I haven’t seen in a while (some of which drove from as far away as Mississippi and Arkansas to attend), and making some new friends as well.
A big thank you to WBBJ TV in Jackson, Keith at WNWS, the crew at Radio Brownsville, and the supportive friends who helped to spread the word!
And a VERY SPECIAL thank you to Sonia and her wonderful staff at the Delta Heritage Center for their hard work, professionalism, attention to detail, and rolling out this event with flawless execution!
Next Up: Clarksville, Tennessee
I’m proud to be a part of A&E’s new fall TV series, “Cursed: The Bell Witch!”
This show goes where other productions wouldn’t go, and sheds much-needed light on one of America’s most terrifying ghost stories. The top-notch crew and other cast members went above and beyond in making sure the legend was “done right,” and it was both an honor and a pleasure to work with them.
I am unable to comment about the show’s plot or other details at this time, so I will leave you with A&E’s “first look” video of “Cursed: The Bell Witch!” Look for the show to begin airing in early October.
ALSO, for updates and more upcoming events and appearances, check out The Bell Witch Web Site, my Facebook page, and my Bell Witch book page. But for now… enjoy the following video. Thanks for watching!
Tuesday May 19th — 8p Central / 9p Eastern, I will be joining Michael Johnson and Steven LaChance for a discussion of the Sultana Disaster, the Bell Witch, and more! This will be on THE FEAR radio.
Click here to listen live!
Thanks for listening!
I’ll be joining Dean on “The Kentucky Ghost Hunter” radio show this Thursday night, May 7th, from 9P-10P Central Time. The show airs on WXMZ 99.9 FM in Hartford, KY (broadcasts to Bowling Green, Owensboro, west central Kentucky area). If you’re not in that area, you can listen live at http://tunein.com/radio/WXMZ-999-s24029/
On Thursday, May 14th, I’ll be joining ParaDelphia Radio for a discussion of the “Bell Witch” at 8P Central / 9P Eastern. You can listen to the live broadcast or the podcast at: www.paradelphia.com
Get your spook on!
Here are a couple photos from my lecture event in Chattanooga, TN on March 5th. The venue, a large retirement center, was situated atop a huge mountain. Talk about cold and windy…whoosh!
More events will be announced soon!
Full Lecture and Book Signing
“The Bell Witch and Other Southern Ghosts”
6:00PM – 7:45PM (Central)
Warren County Public Library
Bob Kirby Branch
175 Iron Skillet Ct.
Bowling Green, KY
More information: Click here
For driving directions, please plug the address into Google Maps.